In October, two young Americans set off on the most daring and foolhardy wilderness expedition since, oh, maybe Lewis and Clark.
They were trying to become the first people ever to backpack from Canada to Mexico on the Pacific Crest Trail in the dead of winter. Once before, in 1983, two people set out to traverse the trail in winter. They never made it. Their bodies were found a month after they fell off an icy cliff.
A winter thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail seemed impossible. The trail is covered by many feet of snow that time of year, and, even if the two explorers managed to find their way, they risked triggering avalanches, plunging through ice into rivers, or simply running out of food while trapped in blizzards.
“People said it was a death sentence,” Shawn Forry, one of the hikers, told me.
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He had estimated half-jokingly at the start that they had a 17 percent chance of succeeding.
But he spoke to me shortly after he and Justin Lichter reached the Mexican border Sunday, completing their 2,650-mile odyssey – and surviving frostbite, blizzards, tumbles into frozen rivers and 1,750 consecutive trail miles without encountering a single other hiker.
Perhaps it feels a little self-indulgent to celebrate two guys who took a long walk. But what a walk! Like the 4-minute mile or the free climb of the Dawn Wall at Yosemite, this is something that seemed beyond human capacity – and then humans did it.
So let’s take a break from current affairs and recriminations about human venality to laud a triumph of human strength.
It helped that the two men were enormously experienced. Forry is a wilderness instructor for Outward Bound. Lichter works on a ski patrol and said he has hiked 35,000 miles, equivalent to nearly 1 1/2 times around Earth. He gave up one long backpack across East Africa when lions were stalking him.
Both Forry and Lichter had hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail in summer – itself an ultimate test of endurance (fewer people have thru-hiked the full trail than have climbed Mount Everest). But they wanted to see it in another season.
“With the snow, there’s so much natural beauty,” Lichter said. “It’s so peaceful. And the frozen rivers have these strange ice formations.”
They used snowshoes and, in California, skis, while carrying loads of up to 45 pounds, including food (they resupplied every week or so). Winter storms were frequent. When it snowed at night, they would get up every 30 minutes to push snow off their tarp to keep it from collapsing on them. In whiteouts, they could barely see and stayed close to each other - except when crossing avalanche zones, when they had to separate to ensure that they would not both get buried in the same avalanche.
Even drinking water was a challenge.
“You’re surrounded by frozen water, but you don’t have easy access to it to drink,” Forry said.
They used a stove to melt snow for drinking water.
The worst period, they said, came in the Oregon mountains when a huge snowfall and below-zero temperatures left them with frostbitten feet. They were able to warm up and avoid permanent damage, yet they still had another 2,000 miles to go.
“At times, you’re pulling your knee up to your chest to take the next step, to get it above the snow - and that’s in snowshoes,” Forry said.
Barney Mann, the chairman of the Pacific Crest Trail Association and unofficial historian of the trail, said that after the frostbite incident he had doubted that Forry and Lichter would succeed.
“It’s the unrelenting cold,” Mann said. “It’s the unrelenting snow. It’s the moment-by-moment challenge of navigation when everything is white.”
One difficult day came in Northern California when a storm dropped 10 inches of rain in 24 hours, winds reached 70 mph and both men tumbled into a swollen torrent of a river that left them and their gear drenched and frigid.
Yet, in spite of all those challenges, they still urge people to try winter camping – carefully.
“I really encourage people to get out in the winter,” Forry said. “You have it to yourself, and it’s so peaceful. But start with a day trip – that way if anything goes wrong, you’re near your car.”
I’m delighted to announce that the winner of my annual win-a-trip contest is Austin Meyer, a journalism student at Stanford University. We’ll probably travel to India and Bangladesh, although Congo is an alternate possibility. The runners-up are Ashley Bastock of John Carroll University, Taylor Graham of Ithaca College and Sam Friedlander of University of Pennsylvania. Thanks to the Center for Global Development for helping me pick Austin from a dazzling field of 450 applicants. Stay tuned for a great reporting trip!
Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.